When Ilya Kovalchuk returned to the NHL this season both he and the Los Angeles Kings were probably expecting better results than this.
The Kings, after making the playoffs a year ago, have been one of the worst teams in the NHL and look like a franchise that is in dire of need of a rebuild. They changed coaches early in the season, made a handful of trades, and have a ton more work to do this summer to hit the reset button on a franchise that has become completely stale.
Kovalchuk, meanwhile, has managed just 14 goals and 31 total points in his 60 games and has found himself as a healthy scratch on more than one occasion, and especially recently as the team tries to look toward the future in what has become a lost season.
That coaching change earlier in the season, which saw Willie Desjardins take over behind the bench for John Stevens, seems to have been a turning point in Kovalchuk’s season, at least based on what he said on Friday when talking about his latest healthy scratch.
“After Willie came here, I don’t have a chance,” Kovalchuk said. “I play five, six minutes a game. A few games I play with Kopi. We did well. We score all five games, but then he decided to change and I never play again much. That’s the way he sees the situation. He’s the head coach and he’s responsible for results.”
There is some evidence to back up that claim as it relates to his playing time.
In the first month of the season Kovalchuk was playing close to 20 minutes per game and had eight points in his first 11 games under Stevens. In the five months that have followed under Desjardins his average ice-time by month has been 15:09, 14:17, 17:25, 16:13, and most recently 14:46 in March. There was an injury mixed in there that robbed of him some games, but he has also found himself as a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenders and only 11 forwards, and has also had four games this season (all under Desjardins) where he has played under 12 minutes, including three under 10 minutes.
Given his age, reduced role, and obviously declining production, as well as the fact the Kings are clearly looking to rebuild it should certainly bring his future with the team into some sort of question.
He still has two more years at more than $6.25 million per season remaining on his contract. He also has a no-movement clause and a limited no-trade clause in the final year, according to CapFriendly.
So he would hold a lot of cards in where he might end up playing if it is not Los Angeles.
Still, he told the media on Friday that he is not looking to move on and that his family has settled into the Los Angeles area.
Again, via the Los Angeles Times:
“It’s another challenge for me,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m even more motivated now because [this has happened] … like, it’s not fair to me but I’m not going to cry in the pillow. The sun’s up and the kids are in school and they’re happy and that’s most important thing. I will find a way to go through this, for sure.”
All of it together creates an interesting situation for everyone involved. If the Kings really do go through with a full-on rebuild it is hard to see how Kovalchuk would fit in those long-term plans, especially if the current coach isn’t willing to play him and he isn’t happy with that role.
While he may not be the 45-50 goal scorer that he was during the first part of his career in the NHL, we also don’t really know what he is still capable of at this level because he might have in the worst possible situation for offense this season. Not only because of the way he has been used, but because the Kings are once again one of the league’s worst offensive hockey teams. He may not be actively searching for a fresh start on another team, but it may be the best thing for everybody involved.